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November 3, 2008

A new gene test now claims to have the ability to detect a wider range of genetic disorders in fetuses. The test, called comparative genomic hybridization, uses “gene chips” to screen for 150 genetic abnormalities. Proponents of the test argue that this technology gives parents and doctors advance notice of the baby’s condition, allowing them time to make decisions about the pregnancy.

Critics point out that the test may produce misleading results, uncovering genetic markers that merely indicate an increased risk of disease. There is no knowledge of how severely a child would be affected by a particular syndrome, even if a DNA irregularity were detected. In the near future these tests could be used not only to detect disease, but to screen for a variety of genetic characteristics completely unrelated to heath, such as height, weight, and physical attractiveness.

What is at stake for human valuing with this new technology? Historically, “treatment” for known genetic disorders has included abortion of the fetus. The prevalent utilitarian thinking of our culture maintains that life is worthy and valuable insomuch as it contributes in a tangible way to human flourishing. This test gives us yet one more tool to assess the physical or mental fitness of an individual before birth. If that life is found to be deficient in some characteristic, why shouldn’t it be terminated before it becomes a burden to itself and to society? Arthur Beaudet, chair of the Baylor College Department of Molecular and Human Development, commented, ”Some of these disorders are quite burdensome… People say, ‘I wish you’d given me the opportunity to know ahead of time. It’s really destroyed our lives.’”

This is alarming to those of us who value life at all stages and abilities. Do we view another human life as a diseased and useless burden, or do we perceive that life as a God-given gift, valuable because it too bears the image of the Creator?

Article in the Washington Post

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